In the end, it was what was everybody expected: A new beginning.
Led by the landslide victory of GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam, Republicans made historic election gains in Tennessee, capturing control of both executive and legislative branches of state government for the first time since the aftermath of the Civil War.
By the end of the night Tuesday, Republicans were projected to have picked up a dozen or more seats in the state House of Representatives and one in the Senate.
“For the first time in modern history, Republicans are going to lead at every level of government in this state,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney. “This is truly a historic day and Republicans are honored that voters have put their trust in our party to lead Tennessee.”
GOP candidates also snagged three previously Democrat-held Congressional seats and now dominate the state’s delegation in Washington, 7-2.
With solid control now of the Tennessee General Assembly and the governor’s office, Republicans will likely have the freedom to set an agenda with little organized resistance from Democrats.
But even basking in the glow of their campaign successes, much of the talk among victorious GOP candidates indicated they are well aware that the spotlight of accountability is now fixed squarely on them.
“I think with strong majorities we’re going to finally get through some of the real solid changes we’ve been talking about for years,” said Stacey Campfield, who beat out Democratic opponent Randy Walker to win the District 7 Senate seat. “Obviously we’re going to be about a billion dollars short in the budget, so we’re going to have to find ways to cut instead of just taxing our way out of a hole.”
Campfield’s predecessor, Republican Tim Burchett, who now serves as Knox County mayor, said the state budget will likely dominate GOP attention in the Legislature — and that the financial health of local city and county governments will depend on how they tackle the issues.
“I think we are going to find out that, fiscally, we are going to have to really right the ship,” said Burchett. “Gov. Bredesen has done a very good job of that, but I think what we’re going to find is that a lot of the one-time money has been used to manage long-term dealings, and there are going to be some things that the legislators find out about shortly after they take office. There are going to be some tough times unless the national economy turns around, and I don’t expect it to do that.”
Haslam, who attracted 65 percent of the vote in his contest with Democrat Mike McWherter, spoke during his victory speech of “sobering challenges” that await the state’s elected leaders in the months ahead.
“All across the state what people want to talk about is jobs, and we need to go to work on that,” Haslam told supporters at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Knoxville.
“But I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never been more optimistic and more enthusiastic about what we can do in the state of Tennessee,” the governor-elect added.
Rep. Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican who is in the mix to become the new House speaker, said GOP candidates ran on platforms of low taxation and fiscal restraint. The next election could be just as rough a year at the polls as 2010 was successful for the party if Republicans don’t make their governing actions fit their campaign promises, he said.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris said voters should expect “less game playing, less partisanship” and “more open government” from the new crew in Nashville.
“We have a mandate here to govern, and that’s what we need to do,” said Norris. “But I think it will be easier to pass a budget when we are not trying to defeat as many taxes.”